Tuesday, September 06, 2005
The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
Y-Man, now departed for the rugged frontier of Tuscon loaned me his copy of this book after an interesting conversation we had about the nature of 'influencers' in society. What C. Wright Mills did for our concept of elite players in government, Y-Man maintained that Gladwell did for our understanding of social connectors.
Turns out that Gladwell's book is a more general case look at the was social movement follow the same patterns as epidemics. He looks at teen smoking, suicide in Micronesia, the spread of syphillis, the fashion predominance of Hush-puppies, and a few dozen other social trends and concludes that each of these follows a pattern which is nothing new to the CDC. Interestingly, he goes a step further and analyzes the types of people who are involved in the spread of social epidemics (mavens, connectors, etc.) and determines that certain 'key influencers' and salesmen "connector" types weild disproportionate amounts of influce over the shape of society.
The book is fascinating, actually, and certainly thought provoking. The statistical analysis of these trends, at the point at which each goes from being something that is isolated to being a bona-fide social epidemic gives the book it's title. The Tipping Point is that moment when someing, anything really, goes mainstream.
Gladwell's observations are acute, if somewhat simplistic. The studies he quotes are interesting. The writing is sloppy. Stylistically, obviously there's nothing here; it isn't that kind of book. But that's not what bothered me. My issue with the book is how ill-documented most of his research was and how quickly he jumped over the logical 'proof' required to draw a conclusion. Gladwell will off-handedly mention a study, breeze through it's conclusions, draw his own, assume they are fact, then build his argument atop this house of cards. It's sloppy writing, and it's certainly sloppy social science.
Compared to, for example, Jared Diamond's fantastically argued, agonizingly researched 'Collapse' which I'm reading concurrently, Gladwell comes across as a bright sociology undergrad, with some cool ideas and a penchant for pointing out neat factoids that support his basic thesis.
This isn't science, and it isn't research. It's not academic writing at all, but instead one of those interesting over-the-counter-at-the-airport pieces of non-fiction which coins a phrase and lets people with a shaky grasp of social trends throw around some smart sounding ideas about how these trends work.
Interesting but deeply flawed.